But social shifts and technological advances are also a factor, according to Rafael van Crimpen, the head of the Breitner Academie in Amsterdam, who told Dutchnews.nl that schools today are embracing digital technology at the expense of art and creativity. “Children draw better if they have more time for it,” van Crimpen said. “Education is changing with the times and that is reflected in their drawings. And of course, digitalization plays a part.” These tendencies are evident in the U.S., too, with many classrooms relying on technology to teach art.
Folkert Haanstra, an arts-education professor who was among the advisors of the Dutch study, says the impact of digitalization is clearest outside of the classroom, where children are spending more time with technology than with drawing, and therefore have less practice. “Moreover,” he said over email, “the quality of the digital images they can make on electronic devices is probably more satisfying and look more professional than the drawings they can make by hand.”
Prioritizing technology usage as a vehicle for learning in general has also diminished an emphasis on handmade art. According to the researchers Shirley Brice Heath and Elisabeth Soep, “when school budgets shrink and employment opportunities demand knowledge of technology and related skills, the arts slip easily into optional or eliminated subjects of study.”
Brice Health, a linguistic anthropologist, and Soep, an expert on youth discourse and digital-media culture, argue that the arts discipline is even more vulnerable than other nonacademic programs. “All artists—especially the young—must be willing to make a leap of commitment,” the two wrote in 1998. “This step involves risks of greater variety than those required to go out for basketball or work on a neighborhood teen board—tasks that few citizens would question or devalue.”
Indeed, the idea that the arts are a low-priority subject in schools is not new. The New York Times reported in 1993 that budget cuts in schools put the arts at risk, and this consequence is too easily dismissed as necessary prioritizing. “Arts education, long dismissed as a frill, is disappearing from the lives of many students—particularly poor urban students,” according to the Times. “Even though artists and educators argue that children without art are as ignorant as children without math, their pleas have gone unheard as schools have struggled with budget cuts.”
Art programs in and even outside of school are constantly at risk of being cut. President Donald Trump and Education Secretary Betsy DeVos have proposed reducing the federal education budget by $9 billion, in part by cutting a $27 million arts-education program.
As the priority placed on the arts in public schools diminishes and digital engagement overwhelms students’ experiences with hand-drawing, there could be more at stake than it appears. As W. G. Whitford wrote in his 1923 article, “A Brief History of Art Education in the United States,” “Without art there is an incompleteness that nothing can overcome. Through correlation and efficient cooperation, artwork becomes ‘a helping hand, a kind of connecting link that binds all subjects to it and makes every study at school more interesting and valuable.’”